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How the News: Works

Simon Pitt | News | Saturday 21st November 2009

Most news isn't news at all.

It isn't new and even if it was, the journalist writing about it didn't discover it. The headlines might come as a shock to the public when they buy their newspaper, but behind the scenes it's a different matter. In newsrooms across the country, journalists know, more or less, what tomorrow's headlines will be. On Newsnight they even tell you! Writing newspapers is largely a process of scheduling the publication of information. The reason something is in the newspaper isn't because it's just been discovered; it's because journalists chose to put it in that day.

As Andrew Marr points out, "News is what the consensus of journalists determines it to be". If The Guardian publishes a story about the frog population of Britain decreasing, that becomes news. The fact that this would be happening whether they published it or not is irrelevant. "Current events" aren't events that are currently happening, they're events that are currently being reported.

For the most part news stories fall into one of five categories:
When one of these events happens, officials will publish a press release. Largely, the articles you read in newspapers are halfhearted rewrites of these. Press releases are compiled by news associates like the Press Association, which then syndicate these to all the newspapers in the country. And where does the Press Association get its press releases? From PR companies trying to promote their client or discredit the competitors.

If you've been reading the newspapers this week, you may have come across this light-hearted little piece of banal trash in the London Metro:
Children's author Enid Blyton was banned from the BBC for nearly 30 years because its executives thought her a 'second-rater' whose work 'lacked literary value'. Blyton - creator of The Famous Five, The Secret Seven and Noddy - was kept off the radio as executives dismissed her plays and books as 'such very small beer', a series of letters and memos from the BBC archives has revealed.
Metro 16/11/09

Meanwhile, if you'd bought the Daily Mail on the same day, you'd have found:
Enid Blyton was banned from the BBC for nearly 30 years because the corporation thought she was a second-rate author. Archived documents which have been made public for the first time chronicle how Blyton, the creator of the Famous Five and Noddy, was kept off the radio because executives dismissed her plays and books as 'very small beer'.
Daily Mail 16/11/09

At the same time, Guardian readers would have been treated to this:
Children's author Enid Blyton was banned from the BBC for nearly 30 years because the corporation thought she was a "second-rater" whose work lacked literary value. Letters and memos from the BBC archives disclose how the creator of the Famous Five and Noddy - and one of the bestselling authors of her time - was kept off the radio as executives regarded her plays and books as "very small beer". In an internal memo dated 1938, Jean Sutcliffe, head of the BBC schools department, dismissed Blyton's work. "Her stories might do for Children's Hour but they haven't much literary value," she wrote.
Guardian 16/11/09

And even Telegraph readers would have been left with feelings of déjà vu:
Blyton, the creator of the Famous Five, the Secret Seven and Noddy, was kept off the radio by executives who dismissed her plays and books as lacking "literary value" and being "such very small beer".
Telegraph 16/11/09

In fact if you Google these phrases you get over 1,000 matches.

So, what happened here? Why are all these articles more or less the same and where did they come from? Come to that, why is everyone suddenly writing about Enid Blyton at all?

To find out we need to trace the source of the article. Working backwards you can see that the press release made its way to the Guardian via the Press Association. And the Press Association got it from the BBC press office
New documents released online reveal the BBC rejected work submitted by Enid Blyton, describing it as "Not strong enough. It really is odd to think that this woman is a best-seller. It is all such very small beer."
BBC Press Office 15/11/09

So, this is where the story came from, but, why was it released on this particular day? A quick look in the TV schedules reveals all. That evening, on BBC Four, this was on:
Enid: Illuminating and surprising drama telling the story of arguably the most popular children's storyteller of all, Enid Blyton.
Now, this all makes sense. The BBC wrote the press release to advertise the programme. The story then infiltrated the newspapers and you probably wouldn't connect the two. You'd glance over the story in the morning, forget it by lunch time, and that evening, when you saw there was a programme on about Enid Blyton you'd think "Oh, how weird, I was just thinking about her the other day". Welcome to the world of PR and journalism.

The Press Association is hugely influential. A recent stuffy found that 70% of stories in the UK's top five newspapers were largely influenced by the Press Association. A further 30% of these stories were simple copies of the text released by the Press Association. The BBC, often regarded as the most trusted of news broadcasters, regards the Press Association as a "confirmed single source".

'Real' journalism, the reporting of an unexpected turn of events, is actually pretty rare. That's why, when it does happen, everyone makes such a fuss. Take, for example, the Telegraph's MP expenses bonanza, which the Telegraph dragged out over weeks.

In the broadsheets, much of the news isn't event based on current events. The Observer (basically the Sunday Guardian), for example is crammed full of supplements: Travel, Magazine, Review, Family, Work, Money, Music and Sport to name a few. These consist of opinion or lifestyle columns, and mainly contain unfocused ramblings, sometimes of a vaguely comic nature, usually about middle class life. Once you start flicking through these, you're not really reading a newspaper in any sense of the word. You're reading a magazine, or, in other words, a comic.

Interrupting this barrage of adverts and banal opinion, you get larger, more complex stories. These are often long-running issues, some of which have been going on for years. Yet, as news watchers, we're still largely no wiser about these issues. I mean, there's been a famine in Africa since the 1980s, but ask the average person to explain it and they won't have a clue. It'll be like asking your frying plan to explain the smelting process.

Stories like these are always running in the background, but they only make it into the headlines when something new happens, or, less frequently, when a journalist returns to the story and investigates it. Moreover, the only time a journalist will return to a story like this is when there isn't anything better to cover. Take Afghanistan, for example. There have been British and American troops there since 2001, but it's only now (seeing as how there's nothing exciting going on in Iraq, and Russell Brand isn't having sex with anyone's granddaughter and MPs aren't buying houses for ducks) that we're actually hearing about it again.

When a big, new story breaks, it initially appears all over the front pages. The next day, our shiny new story is a little less new and a little less shiny, and will be, perhaps, on the second page. By the third day, the issue has become old hat. Everyone knows about it now, there's little new and the story will probably be dropped. All this happens before any of the actual issues are ever really explored.

This is the "Story Curve".

The story curve is created by two things:
  1. Natural developments in the story itself.
  2. The way in which journalism works.
The "story curve" is the name given to the way stories develop. At the start they rise in excitement, they reach a peak, and then they trail off. Natural developments in stories are predictable, and for the most part, journalists just shove stories around the curve until they're over. For example, if there's a flood somewhere, it'll follow a pattern: it'll get worse, the Prime Minister or the Queen will say "oh isn't this bad", we'll have a few human interest stories about middle class people with wet carpets and then that'll be it. Similarly, if a politician does something wrong, there'll be criticisms from the opposition and calls for them to resign, there'll be a bit of a faff about whether the leader will stand by them and then it will all be over. However, many newspapers do not see themselves as impartial observers. The Sun, in particular, likes to regard itself as a major player, claiming that, among other things, it won the 1992 for the Conservatives.

Because of this, journalists will pursue certain lines of questioning that will further their own aims. In turn, this will affect the way the story develops. Political and economic stories are very susceptible to journalistic influence (as shown by the economic crisis when all the newspapers screamed "panic" and then made Northern Rock go bust). Stories about the public complaining run themselves. Take the whole Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand thing. Before the Daily Mail ran the story, there were two complaints. By the time, the story curve had reached its peak there had been 38,000 complaints and a huge scramble by politicians to say they hadn't liked Jonathan Ross anyway.

There are two things going on here:
  1. Journalists are trying to force stories along routes for their own gain.
  2. If there are no new developments, older stories are gradually retired, to make way for new stories.
Newspaper readers demand new news. Old news is worthless, and instantly forgotten. London's Evening Standard, for example, has two editions. By the time the evening comes round, the afternoon edition is already hopelessly out of date. Yesterday's news is practically prehistoric.

What keeps a story fresh is events, not analysis. It's more important to know the latest event than understand an event that happened an hour ago. It doesn't matter that the new event is more trivial than the previous one, the fact that it's new makes it better. This is why TV channels have "Live" splattered all over them.

For this reason, once the story breaks, and a bit of trivial analysis has been applied, it's time for the story to retire. No one notices that most news stories are retired before any of main issues or debates are resolved, because there's already a new story that features more deaths, the loss of more money or contains even more sleaze.

The great thing about the news, as well, is that there is always more of it. It as, as Charlie Brooker once pointed out, like the world's longest and most convoluted soap. So it doesn't matter if today's story is complex, depressing and should bring about a profound change in the way we live our lives, because tomorrow some celebrity will have got drunk and punched a builder, and we can read about that instead.

SP



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